Poverty isn’t eliminated by threatening the poor

In his book Madness and Civilization, the French philosopher Michel Foucault describes the historical arc of social integration of those considered insane. At times, humans have driven the “mad,” as Foucault described them, into hidden institutional recesses. At other times, cultures kept the “mad” in plain sight, not accepting their actions or mental states as normal, but acknowledging the spectrum of the human condition as an integral part of reality.

Though not specific to Foucault’s study, the periodic denial of various strata of our society — the poor, the sick, the addicted, and the criminal — reflects the condition of our social order as a whole. In contemporary American culture, within the confines of liberal and conservative political poles, we have vacillated between open altruism toward and outright demonization of those who struggle to take care of themselves.

But while Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” and a “War on Crime,” and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan declared a “War on Drugs,” these notions contain an inherent fallacy: That poverty, or sickness, or addiction, or crime can be eradicated from our society.

They can’t.

Let me restate the obvious: There will always be crime, poverty, addiction, and illness. Declaring “wars” on a permanent aspect of our culture is nothing but an exercise in propaganda and crowd manipulation.

Then-Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, front, and Gov. Paul LePage answer questions at a press conference in August 2011. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

But this bellicose attitude toward bedrock social realities can be politically beneficial to those espousing it. Everyone loves a hero, and everyone wants to see our heroes fight our villains.

That is our problem.

The poor and the sick are not the problem, they are a constant. Our attitudes toward them is a reflection on who we are as a culture, and if our perspective is that they can be eliminated by declaring “war” on them or their conditions, we are, as a culture, in complete denial.

Our goal should not be eradication of the lower statistical deciles of our social order; our goal should be to care for and deal with the less fortunate in a way that speaks to our higher notions and ennobles our society.

This is why it is so disheartening to see the malice toward the underclasses that feeds so much of our political discourse in Maine in the age of Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage, and his welfare protege Mary Mayhew, have adopted the foolish and cruel position that poverty and crime can be eliminated by tightening the clenched fist. In their minds, cutting off funding for the poor and throwing drug offenders into prison for life will scare society’s ills away. As they see it, people will stop choosing to be poor, sick or criminal if they are left to fend for themselves or fear incarceration, and instead they will choose to be healthy, productive members of society.

Lots of people think this way. But they’re wrong. Government does not succeed by brandishing the patriarchal belt and scaring the citizenry into order. You cannot eliminate poverty by threatening those who suffer from it.

This approach reflects a cultural cruelty that is exacerbated by the political success it brings. While our current state government fritters away millions of dollars through administrative incompetence, voters are distracted by fear of drug dealers killing our children and impregnating our “young, white girls.” Instead of tightening controls over scarce taxpayer funds and running an efficient bureaucracy, the LePage administration points to lazy layabouts that are living off the dole while the rest of us toil for our paychecks.

And it works. People like LePage win elections.

The damage of this malicious political posture is everywhere around us — the disaster at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, the arbitrary shutdown of the prison in Washington County, hundreds of millions in lost funding for the poor and sick thanks to LePage’s obstinance on Medicaid expansion, hundreds of cases of neglected death and abuse of the developmentally disabled within Mayhew’s Department of Health and Human Services system. The list goes on and on.

It’s time for a deeper discussion about these issues. Conservatives are wrong about our social welfare system, not because of their ideology that says a rising tide lifts all boats — they are correct about that — but because of the passions that have swept them away from economics and into the manipulative arms of cynical politicians.

We aren’t helping the poor and sick by taking care of them less. It makes no sense — it’s a denial of simple math. You can’t improve the lot of our less fortunate by taking their food and healthcare away from them.

Conservatives need to shake themselves from this absurd notion and realize that our cultural dignity should be our highest priority. There is no magical future where the impoverished disappear, the sick become healthy, and crime goes away.

If there is an American idyll to aspire to, it is our place as a beacon of compassion toward the human condition. This doesn’t mean fiscal irresponsibility or the out-of-control growth of government — it means laying aside the malice toward those in need and working more thoughtfully on ways to mitigate their suffering.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.